Society is continually changing. Social change involves the set of adjustments or adaptations made by a group of people in response to a dramatic change in at least one aspect of their lives. Historically social change has always occurred on a global scale and is a defining feature of contemporary society. Any instance of social change can be viewed and interpreted through multiple perspectives. The five interpretations discussed in this chapter are modernism, conservatism, postmodernism, evolution, and fashion.
Modernism views society as advancing along a straight path. It holds that change always brings progress and that what is modern or new will automatically be better than what it is replacing. Sociologist Auguste Comte, for example, saw positivism as an aspect of scientific modernism. Herbert Spencer’s idea of “survival of the fittest,” in which he applied Darwin’s ideas to society argued that societies naturally proceed from simple to complex and only the strongest triumph, is another sound example of a modernist take on how the world works. This position on modernism is also referred to as social Darwinism. Similarly, Lewis Henry Morgan argued societies progress through three distinct stages: savagery, barbarism, civilization. Today we see rather rapid changes, especially in the area of technology. Technological change ushers social change. Up to the mid-twentieth century, modernism entailed belief that science and technology would create a better world. However, Noam Chomsky has argued that modernism has a narrow vision, stating that progress is not equally advantageous for all and that “whatever innovation benefits the dominant class is justifiable on the grounds of progress.” Similarly, critics of modernism note that science and technology have equally created as many problems as they have solved including pollution, work, stress, exploitation, and cultural alienation in traditional societies.
Conservatism, on the other hand, sees social change as potentially more destructive than constructive. This destructive aspect is especially noticeable in emotionally charged areas of life such as family, gender roles, sexuality, and the environment. Conservativism is rooted in the belief that change is not always for the best and that in fact it is important to make sure some things such as values, stay the same. An idea closely associated with conservatism is the cycle of civilization, the belief that civilizations rise and fall in a somewhat predictable sequence. Critics of conservatism note that conservatives are apt to use the slippery-slope argument. This logical fallacy occurs when one instance of social change is cited as evidence of the imminent collapse of the entire social order. Moreover, conservativism tends to project backwards to an idealized picture of social life. It yearns for an idealized past.
Postmodernism focuses on the validity of multiple perspectives and voices (polyvocality). This approach challenges the notion that researchers can speak for people whom they study without letting them have a voice. It further challenges the notion that anyone can talk of progress or decline across all societies. This model recognizes that change can benefit some while harming others. For example, so-called advances in computer technology are automatically viewed as good and beneficial, yet not everyone has equal access to them. The digital divide, for example, further separates different social classes in terms of access to increasingly important technology. Canadian futurist Arthur Kroker uses the term virtual class to describe those whose power and wealth are derive from making the world “virtual”- a position not everyone has equal access to.
Evolution is a model of social change in which change is seen as an adaptation to a set of particular circumstances. However, rather than presuming the survival of the fittest, this approach posits the “survival of the best fit.” Fluctuations in family structure and the number of children per family are fine examples of adaptation to external environmental circumstances. The adaptation is manifest when agricultural families, for example, need and therefore have more children, contemporary urban families tend to have fewer children.
The fashion model of change promotes change for its own sake and points out that change does not always reflect a value change, improvement, or turn for the worse. At the same time our changing attitudes toward tattoos signify further tolerance. The frequent usage of the f word is a signifier of social change as well. Recently, important social changes have occurred in Canada recently. Two examples are the decline of the cod fisheries in Newfoundland and Labrador and the growth of Islam as a Canadian religion. Both have had significant impacts on many aspects of social life in this country.
Sociology too, must change, adapt, and evolve. The discipline is facing some challenges, however, with formal membership in sociological organizations declining even while the number of faculty members in sociology is rising. This decline in membership is an indication of emerging trends within sociology that tend to challenge the ‘old boys’ club’ mentality dominant in the field. One way that sociology can change is by getting better (modernism), staying true to its core principles (conservativism), being critical of society and becoming more inclusive of marginalized voices by embracing Indigenous perspectives (postmodernism) and other marginalized groups. Further, sociology must adapt to changing realities (evolution) and must go with the times (fashion).
After reading chapter fifteen, you will be able to:
- Compare and contrast five different interpretations of social change using examples.
- Explain social change using cod fishery and religion as an agent of change in Canada.
- Critically discuss how sociology as an academic discipline has to adapt to social change.
- Recognize the inadequacy of sociological knowledge concerning aboriginal people.
- See the inclusive necessity of Indigenous or in broader terms, ‘minorities’ sociology.
- Appreciate the need for more voices in sociology to thrive in the twenty-first century.